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Newton: A new voice atop L.A.'s teachers union

Warren Fletcher wrapped up his work three weeks ago as an English teacher at City of Angels and moved over to the headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles, where he is the union's new president. He missed his first negotiating session because he had to finish grading papers, and arrived at the union's imposing if slightly run-down mid-rise in Mid-Wilshire with so little fanfare that many people didn't even know he'd taken office. But Fletcher's soft start should not fool anyone: With his election, he has become one of the region's most formidable political forces, commanding a battle-hardened phalanx of unionists in desperate need of fresh leadership.

Fletcher is graying and slight, loquacious and yet meticulous with words (he's an English teacher, after all) and notably comfortable, even with criticism. In all of that, he's a welcome departure from the bombastic thuggery of his predecessor, A.J. Duffy, who rallied the UTLA membership by scapegoating those who challenged union orthodoxy. When The Times, for instance, published a series of articles analyzing teacher performance using a "value-added" statistical approach, Duffy not only rejected the methodology but also blamed the paper for the suicide of one teacher who received a so-so ranking — plumbing the depths of Duffy's cynical demagoguery.

By contrast, Fletcher offered in conversations last week that he's read The Times all his life and respects its coverage even when he takes issue with it, as he did with some recent work of mine criticizing the role of unions in thwarting a parent takeover of a Compton school.

If Fletcher is wildly different from Duffy in style (during the course of our conversation he quoted William Butler Yeats, William F. Buckley Jr. and "The Wire"), he's less so on substance. He emphatically rejects value-added analysis of teacher performance and accuses the paper of having "poisoned the well so deeply" that it has vastly complicated the quest to produce a new method of teacher evaluation. He's concerned about what he sees as the stratification of a system into charter schools and those left behind. And he's dismissive of attempts to reduce teaching to quantitative measures. "You can't fatten a pig by weighing it," he said, peering over his glasses.

Exercising leadership of UTLA is notoriously difficult. The union's active membership is just a fraction of the district's 40,000 teachers, and its core activists historically have been much more combative than teachers generally. That creates a tug on the union leadership, pulling it toward confrontation with the district when some teachers, perhaps even most, might be more comfortable with cooperation. Without addressing those questions specifically, Fletcher emphasized that he would be an "unapologetic … voice for the classroom" and suggested that such a voice was essential at a time when those in charge of the district "don't have a commitment to the institution" and "don't really understand what they're doing."

Even there, though, he displayed a refreshing command of nuance and dedication to civility. He declined to denigrate Supt. John Deasy or refer to him by his first name. "He's Dr. Deasy," Fletcher said. "He's my boss." He acknowledged that both district and union are responsible for the wretched communications between them, and he insisted that he could be principled in defense of his members without being strident.

It was harder for him to hold his tongue about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor worked for UTLA years ago — Fletcher was a member of the board that hired him in 1987 — and Villaraigosa's recent attacks on the union have struck many of his former colleagues as political opportunism, the desire to score points as independent of the union at its expense.

Asked about Villaraigosa, Fletcher fought hard to contain himself. The mayor, he said, is a resident of California and Los Angeles and "a prominent citizen" and as such has every right to voice his opinions on school issues. But Los Angeles is chock-a-block with prominent citizens, from the vapid to the preening to the merely rich. Isn't the mayor entitled to more respect than any of L.A.'s infinite number of celebrities? Fletcher sniffed out the dangers in that question. "In the end, he has experience," he said of Villaraigosa. "He's been inside the L.A. schools. He's the mayor.... If he wants to be a constructive part of the conversation, we're happy to join him."

UTLA's past leadership has made it a pariah and symbol of uncompromising adherence to a failing status quo. Fletcher's election offers an opportunity for the union to reinvent itself as a principled advocate of educational excellence with an unbridled commitment to students. Will UTLA be party to a rescue or the last defense of a failure? As Fletcher said, the union "will have to be a part of saving LAUSD." And Fletcher will have to be a part of saving UTLA.

jim.newton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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